Movie Review: Queen of Katwe

When I first heard of this movie, I assumed it would receive several Oscar nominations. That buzz was apparent at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall. Unfortunately, the Academy chose to bypass the movie.

Disappointing but not discouraging enough to prevent millions of people worldwide from seeing the movie on the big screen and now on DVD.

Set in Africa, the movie has an entirely black-speaking cast and focuses on a five-year period in the life of Phiona Mutesi (brilliantly played by Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate Ugandan girl living a hardscrabble life in a Kampala slum.

The trajectory of Phiona’s life changes when she walks into a small classroom, enticed by an offer of free porridge. There, she discovers the game of chess and a mentor in Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo). She demonstrates an extraordinary talent for the game and easily learns the rules and strategies.

Throughout the film, many life lessons are imparted, some from Katende, others from the colorful cast of characters.

In his first encounter with Phiona, Katende watches the newcomer physically attack the chess kids who mock her. Instead of reprimanding her, he comments, “This is a place for fighters.” Other chess/life lessons include believing in yourself, accepting challenges, “resetting the pieces,” and overcoming defeat.

The tiny girl assigned to teach Phiona the basics shares her love of the game: “In chess, the small one can become the big one. That’s why I like it.”

In five short years, Phiona achieves what many consider an impossible dream for an impoverished African child: Flying to international chess tournaments, enrolling in higher education, and buying a house for her mother (played by Lupita Nyong’o).

Director Mira Nair has succeeded in recreating Phiona Mutesi’s empowering journey while skillfully capturing the intensity of life in Katwe.

A must-see film that will inspire and motivate.


Movie Review: Lion

Working from real-life source material, director Garth Davis masterfully lays out the story of Saroo, a five-year-old Indian child who experienced the unimaginable when he was separated from his brother and ended up on a 1000-mile train ride that carried him from rural India to Calcutta.

In the first half of the film, Saroo (beautifully played by Sunny Pawar) wanders aimlessly through the streets of Calcutta, frantically searching for his brother while struggling to make himself understood and fleeing from unscrupulous adults. Fortunately, the trajectory of his life changes when he is adopted by a childless white couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and moves to Tasmania.

In the second half, Saroo (Dev Patel) appears as a charming, twenty-something man who appears to have adapted well to his privileged environment. But all that changes when he attends a party in Melbourne and recognizes a favorite food from his childhood. Encouraged by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and other friends, Saroo uses Google Earth to search for his birthplace. What follows is a lengthy and frustrating journey as Saroo deals with fragmented childhood memories and an ever-widening radius of possibilities.

As Saroo becomes more and more obsessed with his search, he encounters increasing friction in his relationships with his mother, girlfriend, and troubled adoptive brother (Divian Ladwa). I would have liked more scenes with these characters and flashbacks to his formative years in Melbourne.

It’s not surprising that Lion has been nominated for six Oscars–Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Music Score, Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography. Definitely a major contender and worth seeing.


Movie Review: La La Land

7 Nominations → 7 Wins → Golden Globes Record!

While watching the Golden Globes Awards Ceremony, I got caught up in La La Land fever and knew I had to see this movie…to see if it merited all the hype.

I wasn’t disappointed.

From start to finish, the movie entertains and engages us. The music is simply delightful—not surprising that awards were given for Best Song and Best Musical Score—and the acting is superb—Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have extraordinary screen chemistry.

Set against the backdrop of modern-day Hollywood, this is an old-fashioned story of an aspiring actress who falls for a piano-playing jazz pianist. While much of the movie is grounded in reality, the musical numbers remind us of the razzle-dazzle days of old Hollywood. My favorites include the opening scene where people exit their cars and start dancing on a traffic-clogged freeway in Los Angeles and a later scene where the young lovers take a metaphorical flight up into the stairs of the Rialto Cinema.

I believe it’s impossible to watch this movie and not be uplifted by its inspiring message. Emma Stone said it best: “These have been really rough times. To have something so transporting that brings you joy and nostalgia and hope and heartbreak for two hours is really needed now.” (Interview–Closer Magazine)


Movie Review: Hidden Figures

As a retired mathematics teacher, I took great pride in watching three brilliant African-American women help launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit. The film focuses on the untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical prodigy whose grasp of analytic geometry makes her indispensable to NASA.

But Katherine’s workplace environment is far from pleasant.

As the only female mathematician in a sea of white men, she is barely tolerated by her colleagues and forced to endure indignities. I couldn’t believe her half-mile trek to the “colored” bathroom in a separate building and the “colored” coffee pot that was designated for her use. Thankfully, Director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) intervenes.

Acting office supervisor (without the proper title or pay), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) deals with an unsympathetic superior (Kirsten Dunst), who accepts and promotes the idea that segregation is “just the way things are.”

Feisty Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) faces discrimination at all levels when she applies to the engineer training program at the University of Virginia.

Eyes riveted to the screen, I alternated between goose bumps and brimming tears, as I watched these ‘60s women surmount challenges and receive the respect and recognition they rightfully deserved. Photos of the actual women in the closing credits add to the authenticity of this larger-than-life film.


Movie Review: The Dressmaker

Before watching, I read one review that suggested this movie might not be a comfortable fit for North American viewers. But I couldn’t resist the premise of love and revenge in 1950s rural Australia and the casting of Kate Winslet as protagonist Mildred (Tilly) Dunnage. So, I rented the DVD.

I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I was entertained and fascinated by the eccentric characters, plot twists, budding romances, dark secrets, deaths, and haute couture in this excellent adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s debut novel.

The film opens with drop dead gorgeous Tilly stepping off a Greyhound bus, setting her Singer sewing machine on the ground and snarling, “I’m back, you bastards.” Within seconds, cross-dressing Sergeant Farrat (Hugh Weaving) approaches and asks, “Is that…Dior?” From there, Tilly continues to her family home where she intends to nurse her sick mother (Judy Davis), who lives in squalor at the top of the hill.

Barely tolerated by her mother and shunned by many of the townspeople, Tilly refuses to leave. Instead, she stays and uses her dressmaking skills to transform the frumpy women. But that is only part of a plan that slowly unravels as Tilly falls in love with a childhood friend (Liam Hemsworth) and then experiences personal tragedies.

More twists and turns and the ending is totally unexpected. Or perhaps not.


Movie Review: Collateral Beauty

The reviews were less than promising. And the Rotten Tomatoes score dropped from 24 percent to 14 percent in less than one week. But I was determined to see this new Christmas movie with an other-worldly twist and a host of A-list actors.

Will Smith stars as grief-stricken Howard Inlet, the owner of a Manhattan ad agency, who spends his time building intricate structures out of dominos, writing poison pen letters to Love, Time, and Death, and bicycling madly through the streets of New York. Unable to even speak of his six-year-old daughter’s death, Howard retreats further and further from reality, jeopardizing the financial futures of his company and minority partners: Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña).

Desperate to seize control and prevent catastrophe, the partners hire three struggling actors to personify Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Kiera Knightly), and Time (Jacob Latimore) and gaslight Howard while an unscrupulous investigator records the interactions and doctors the footage. I enjoyed watching all these “entities” in action…my favorite was Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Death.

Taken aback by these personal replies from the universe, Howard begins to doubt his sanity and seeks solace in a support group headed by Madeleine (Naomie Harris).

The three partners share their own issues with the actors, acquiring new insights as the film reaches its climax.

While watching, I was able to suspend my own ideas about what usually happens when angels and wannabe angels don’t magically appear and set everyone on the right path. And that is the allure of inspirational fables such as Collateral Beauty.

As to the definition of collateral beauty…it wasn’t made very clear in the film. This is my interpretation:

Our deepest losses can bring us to our knees and endanger our peace of mind. But those losses can also reveal moments (sometimes micro-moments) of beauty and laughter. When those fleeting moments appear, we must acknowledge them.


Movie Review: Rules Don’t Apply

Set in late 1950s Los Angeles, Rules Don’t Apply is a fictional portrait of Howard Hughes in his later years. Wearing two hats—director and actor—Warren Beatty skillfully captures the eccentricities, OCD habits, and neurosis of the reclusive billionaire.

Appearing primarily in shadows, Hughes interacts with a revolving door of characters played by several A-list actors, among them Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Candice Bergen.

The main plot involves a fictional love triangle with aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), chauffeur Frank Forbes (Alen Ehrenreich), and Howard Hughes. Several comedic scenes with Marla’s mother (Annette Bening) highlight the frustration experienced by the more than thirty young women who are anxiously awaiting their screen tests and first encounters with Howard Hughes.

Ignoring the rule that chauffeurs cannot have relationships with the actresses, Marla and Frank flirt and gravitate toward each other. But when Marla finally meets Hughes for his-and-hers TV dinners on folding trays, she becomes infatuated with him. And, in his weird, unconventional way, Hughes also shows interest. Complications ensue, and Marla disappears from the movie for a significant period of time. I would have liked more scenes with Marla and her mother.

At times, the movie rambles, veering in several directions. While some scenes—especially those involving intense cravings for banana nut ice cream and bizarre flights manned by Hughes—are comedic, others only skim the surface of the billionaire’s business problems and accusations of dementia by an unauthorized biographer.

An entertaining movie that has piqued my interest about Howard Hughes.